The value of woodlands to the landscape of lowland Britain cannot be disputed.  2016 saw the celebration of the inspirational work of Lancelot Capability Brown whose use of woodlands and trees was integral to the creation of many of our most treasured and valued landscapes.  Locations that lift our hearts and spirts at every visit.  His work has guided us to understand and appreciate how carefully sited woodland and trees can add value, providing screening and enclosure of space and landscapes, framing views and vista’s and providing a backdrop of warmth and colour.

One of the most staggering aspects of all of these landscapes is that those responsible for their design and creation would never live to the visions realised.  Capability Brown landscapes are now 300 years old!  Trees and woodland more than any other landscape feature take time to reach their true potential; it is undoubtedly one of the frustrations, but also one of their most endearing values.  They offer the potential for real legacy and a gift for future generations.  As custodians it is our right, privilege and duty to ensure that these unique assets are maintained, managed and enhanced to add real value in its widest understanding.

Forests under threat

This is more important than it ever has been.  Sadly our woodlands are currently under threat.  New diseases threaten some of our most iconic trees from ash, which forms the backbone of many of our most important broadleaved woodlands to the larch and Corsican pine, which have provided and enhanced our pallet of productive conifer species suitable across the UK.  Additionally, uncontrolled and managed populations of both wild deer and grey squirrels add additional layers of complexity to the management of our woodland resource.

However, it is not all bad news and we are seeing increasing demands for timber and woodland products. Robert Penn’s wonderful book “The Man who Made things From Trees” highlights the myriad of ways in which ash timber has been used over the years for our tools, furniture, bowls and platters and sporting goods. The Grown in Britain initiative has also highlighted the ways in which woodland and timber should connect with our lives from the smallest tools to some of our most iconic buildings and possibly soon the “Toothpick” on top of London’s Barbican, which could become the world tallest timber building.  On a more modest level, changes in exchange rates post Brexit and an increased focus on home grown timber have seen significant improvements in prices for many timber products.  In addition, the continuing expansion in the use of wood burning stoves and biomass heating systems has also seen a continued demand and strong prices for lower grade hardwood and softwood timbers.

Tree planting as an asset

Woodland also continues to be a sound investment.  Forestry and woodland has been the top performing asset type in the last 15years generating returns in excess of 10% a year.  John Clegg and Co’s Market Report 2016 highlights that recent uncertainties have led to smaller trading volumes, however, the market is still buoyant and likely to become more so as the impact of increasing timber prices and supply constraints come to the fore.

Taxation issues, whilst not the driver of years ago are also critical and the need to ensure that woodlands remain “commercial” is still key to many of the reliefs including 100% relief against IHT.

Timber and sustainability

Timber production is still the heartbeat of woodlands commercial sustainability and recent increases in commodity prices and the negative focus on agricultural subsidies has meant that timber is now being seen as a valuable and renewable source of income.  Many owners are now recognising that their woodland should be seen as a potential asset and income resource, rather than a necessary although unwelcome cost centre.  Opportunities to add value can be identified across all stages of woodland development from the utilisation of attractive capital grants for woodland creation, up to £8,800/ha, use of good province seed and planting stock, specifically selected for individual sites and likely impacts of climate change.  As crops develop high quality silvicultural management, including well planned and executed thinning and formative pruning can be critical to crop development and value.  Finally, at harvest, an understanding of the resource and identification of market opportunities can be of great importance.

Commercial woodland opportunities

Recreation opportunities can also prove lucrative, with many woodland owners taking advantage of the unique “feel” of woodlands to develop new and innovative opportunities.  With Glamping and Log Cabins now so in vogue and rental values in excess of £1,000/wk now common for relatively small units, high returns can be secured for high quality sites in good locations.  Other activities such as paintballing, mountain biking and high rope courses also continue to be popular.  Woodland also continues to provide the framework and backbone for estate shooting enterprises.

Beyond the direct use opportunities, Natural Capital and Ecosystem services remain at the heart of government thinking and will form a key element of the proposed 25yr Plan for the Natural Environment. However, commercialisation remains tantalisingly out of reach.  Woodland is widely recognised as the habitat most able to deliver across the widest range of ecosystem services, for example;  flood prevention and alleviation, air quality, water quality, health and wellbeing, carbon sequestration, landscape, biodiversity, local climate regulation and public access to nature.  Values of over £600/ha for carbon sequestration are regularly quoted and recent research in Torbay estimated that the value of air quality improvements by woodland at £240/ha per annum or in excess of £6,500/ha.

Woodland and the ecosystem

The expectation is that structures for the payment of ecosystem services will come forward, possibly under the banner of the Governments 25yr plan.  It is therefore vital to understand the ecosystem contribution of the woodland estate and how this can be developed and enhanced to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they develop.

For those of us involved with woodland, we have always had a deep understanding of the value of woodlands. As custodians of this resource, we now have a real opportunity to raise the profile of this unique and hugely valuable resource and bring it into the mainstream of our property asset thinking.

With sound backing, woodlands are becoming an increasingly core element of Britain’s environmental strategic planning – for both economic benefit and aesthetic development.  As Britain moves forward towards a future of greater independence and self-reliance, now is the time to become your own Capability Brown and, as custodians of this valuable resource, take this excellent opportunity to raise the profile of your unique and valuable woodlands, and create a resource for future generations to treasure and enjoy.

Author: John Lockhart

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